MESOP COMMENTARY : The Politics of Terrorism Lists – By DAVID ROMANO

The U.S. State Department just removed The People’s Mujahideen, or Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), from its list of designated terrorist organizations.  The MEK was responsible for thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of attacks on Iranian civilians over the years. 

The most infamous attacks occurred on June 28 and August 30, 1981, when the MEK set off bombs that between them killed some seventy high ranking Iranian officials, including Iran’s chief justice, its newly elected Prime Minister, its newly elected President, four cabinet members and twenty-seven members of the Majlis (Iranian parliament).  During the Iran-Iraq war, the MEK invaded Iran along with Saddam Hussein’s army, using weapons and hardware supplied by the Ba’athist regime to fight Iranians.  In 1991, the MHK helped Saddam suppress the uprisings in Kurdistan and the Shiite south of Iraq.

Perhaps the MEK has changed since then.  I admit that I haven’t seen much about their activities of late, besides rumours of their involvement in various Israeli and American covert operations in Iran and the difficulties faced by their cadres in Camp Ashraf in Iraq since 2003.  While in Geneva in 2011 I also spoke at length with several MEK members manning a protest tent outside the U.N. headquarters there, although that’s hardly the best way to get a good idea about whether or not they should still be considered a “terrorist organization.”

It’s usually frustratingly difficult, in fact, ever to get accurate, up to date facts about insurgent groups’ tactics.  Unless the groups in question are vicious and callous enough to freely admit that they intentionally target civilians (Al Qaeda, Hamas, Ansar al-Sunnah and similar groups come to mind here), academics like myself are left poring over unreliable reports and attacks for which no one claimed responsibility.  Even the MEK attacks of 1981 that killed so many Iranian civilian government officials were neither claimed nor denied by the MEK (the perpetrators of the June 28 and August 30 attacks were both MEK members, however).

In the end it probably doesn’t matter much whether academics believe a group deserves to be on a terror list or not.  I think we all know why the United States removed the MEK from the list: Relations with the regime in Iran have hit an all time low, and the Americans no longer seem to hold out much hope for U.S.-Iranian negotiations.  This, combined with a robust MEK lobbying campaign of American senators, congressmen and government officials, means that the enemy of America’s enemy is now America’s friend – no matter how much civilian blood it has on its hands.  The MEK no doubt offered the Americans a lot of help with intelligence gathering and covert activities as well.  The mullahs in Teheran, in turn, will see vindications for their conspiracy theories about the Americans’ true intentions.  It’s not a conspiracy theory, after all, if they really are out to get you.

The political nature of terror lists – whether of the United States, the European Union, Canada or other countries – cheapens them immensely.  Turkey’s Prime Minister decries the “terrorist PKK” [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] just before he heads off to the airport to welcome the latest Hamas visitor for lunch.  Iranian leaders rail against the evils of the MEK at the same time as they wire money to Islamic Jihad in Palestine and a whole bevy of groups in Iraq and Afghanistan.

If groups could really get off terror lists by turning away from terrorist tactics, the PKK would have been removed from Western lists for at least a time after 1999.  PKK leaders even changed its name to KADEK and Kongra-Gel in 2002 and 2003, in the vain hope of encouraging others to recognize their withdrawal from armed operations, their change in tactics and their call for negotiations.  It probably would not have mattered if the PKK even metamorphosed into a bunch of blind boy (and girl) scouts, however.  As long as their friends in Ankara insist so much that the PKK remain on the terror list, the Americans will keep it there no matter what the organization does or doesn’t do (as for the Iranians, what they insist on no longer matters in Washington).

Armed insurgent groups thus seem to have few incentives to stop engaging in terrorism, since that’s not what really gets them onto or off of the terror lists.  Little wonder then that so many fail to reform themselves.

 * David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since August 2010. He is the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and author of The Kurdish Nationalist Movement (2006, Cambridge University Press).